Audiences watching the Season One finale of I Love Lucy in 1953 saw a prime-time first — a pregnant actress playing the part of a pregnant woman. In “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” Ricky, Fred and Ethel rehearse their plan calmly: Call the doctor, remember to take a pre-packed suitcase, support Lucy, call a cab, and get her to the hospital. But when Lucy announces she is actually in labor, everything falls apart. The doctor’s phone is busy; Ricky and Fred empty the suitcase onto the floor; and the three rush out of the apartment leaving Lucy to fend for herself.
By the time they arrive at the hospital, Ricky is in the wheelchair and Lucy is walking behind, carrying her own suitcase. Like real-life men of the era, Ricky isn’t permitted beyond the maternity ward reception area, where he signs all the papers and provides money while Lucy goes off to labor. Ricky is relegated to the fathers’ waiting room where he paces ad nauseum.
Indeed, ever since, the “panicky expectant father” has become a tired sitcom trope. Dear Old Dad is usually given something ostensibly helpful to do — boil water, find clean sheets, get his wife to hospital — which comedically stumps him. Once the baby is born, various celebratory traditions ensue, like cigar distribution and/or buying a round for the house. Seamingly every sitcom has one — from Friends to Family Ties to All in the Family to Alf — as well as big-screen romcoms like Knocked Up, Nine Months and The Back-Up Plan — all of which collectively determined how men have responded to labor and delivery in America.
But man’s IRL odyssey from the waiting room to the labor room to the delivery room over the last half century has been a bumpy one — and not always funny. Here’s how the Expectant Dad evolved from perennial punchline to pregnancy copilot…
1) Until the mid-1900s, childbirth in America was exclusively a female affair. “A pregnant mother gave birth at home after ‘calling her women together’ and sending her husband out of the house completely,” explains Judith Walzer Leavitt, emeritus professor of women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin and author of the 1988 book, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750–1950. Leavitt tells me she had to rely almost entirely on male sources to describe what happened since they were the only ones who’d had time to keep a journal during labor.
Realizing fathers had a story to tell, in 2009, Leavitt wrote an addendum birthing book from dad’s point-of-view: Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room. In it, she explains how until the 20th century, husbands were only granted temporary access to the hen party of childbirth. In one journal entry, a new father recalls being briefly invited to meet his new daughter before the midwife stepped in and compelled him, “with reluctant steps, to quit the spot.”
2) “Remember,” notes Craig McKnight, an OBGYN in New London, Connecticut, “in 19th century agrarian society there were jobs that needed to be continued. Farmers couldn’t just let the cows idly sit for two or three days. There had to be somebody tending to the business of the family while someone else was attempting to make the family.”
3) In the 1900s, to escape the “shadow of maternity” — i.e. an ever-present possibility of death from childbirth — women sought to make maternity safer by moving it to a (seemingly) cleaner environment. By 1938, more than half of American woman gave birth at a hospital. After dropping wives off, some men returned home to await news of their child’s birth. Others retired to a nearby bar or restaurant to eat and drink their worries away. Most often though, they sat in what came to be known as “Stork Clubs,” male-only waiting rooms near maternity suites where soon-to-be dads would pace, smoke cigarettes and commiserate with other men as they awaited updated information about their wives’ condition.
4) For example, in the fifth episode of Season Three of Mad Men, a laboring Betty Draper is bossed around by an unsympathetic nurse, who coldly explains to Don, “Your work here is done,” before sending him to wait in the solarium-turned-Stork Club.
5) Norman Rockwell captured the mood of a Stork Club for the Saturday Evening Post in 1946, illustrating the ways men behaved while their wives delivered babies, including “the frightened novice,” “the magazine shredder,” “the believer in the worst,” “the hearty salesman,” “the chain smoker” and “the pacer.”
6) Stork Clubs varied from hospital to hospital, Leavitt says, but men generally described them as “stale,” “uncomfortable” and “a little claustrophobic” with “a lot of smoking going on.” Afraid of missing out on the news if they left, men remained there, sometimes for days, before receiving an update that their wives had delivered. As sociologists William R. Rosengren and Spencer DeVault explained in a 1958 paper, “The rooms we observed were suggestive that the father is regarded as the least important person in the process; unnecessary and functionally peripheral.”
7) Re: all that smoke: Ashtrays obviously abounded in the Stork Club. As historian Allan Brandt notes in his 2009 book, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America, soldiers were issued cigarettes during World War II and introduced them to others upon their return. By midcentury, more than half of all Americans indulged in the habit. Cut off from food and alcohol, expectant fathers doubled down on cigarettes, which led to cartoon artists depicting father’s waiting rooms as smoke-filled, anxiety dens.
8) Throughout pop culture — as in I Love Lucy — otherwise responsible dads were portrayed as hapless, ignorant fools when waiting for baby. Case in point: A 1958 skit on The Steve Allen Show featuring Allen and Henry Fonda as first time fathers-to-be in a maternity waiting room began with the introduction: “Even a man who is a successful industrialist will turn into a bumbling incompetent wreck when facing his wife’s delivery.”
9) Or as humorist Russell Baker put it in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1982, “All I knew about the glorious experience had been learned from the movies. I knew fathers were supposed to sit in waiting rooms and smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, loosen their neck ties, perspire heavily and rush into the corridor periodically to ask, ‘How is she, Doc?’ That’s what I did. It seemed absurd but I did it anyway because nobody had told me anything else to do. And didn’t Jerry Lewis do the same thing whenever he had a baby?”
10) Indeed, in 1958’s Rock-a-Bye Baby, Lewis waited, smoking and nervous, in the fathers’ waiting room while his wife delivered. Then, with Lewis still smoking, the nurse presented him his babies through nursery glass.
11) In reality, the scene was a bit darker. Many hospitals kept “fathers’ books” in the Stork Clubs, blank journals in which men could read what other waiting fathers had written and add their own remarks. In one entry, a Chicago man offered, “How many fathers are out there who have left this room sick to their stomachs with anguish — knowing they’ll be going home alone with no wife and no baby. I pray for anyone who is ever faced with this situation.”
12) Other dads, like Dale Clark, suggested disbanding the Stork Club altogether. In 1949 he published “A Husband’s Place Is Not in the Waiting Room” in Esquire, constituting the first recorded call for resistance. “The specialized modern age seems to have progressed to the point where an expectant father is not needed — or even allowed — beyond the waiting lounge of the urban hospital,” he wrote. “It’s about time for all husbands — the whole crowd in the Stork Club — to grab hatchets and chop through the partition.”
Journalist, social critic and author Vance Packard echoed this sentiment in American Magazine three years later, noting that in each of his children’s births, “I was shunted into a darkened hospital waiting room to pace and wring my hands and listen for distant screams. Whenever I sought information I was repulsed as a nuisance by frowning nurses.”
13) “These men were used to making decisions for themselves,” Leavitt explains. “To be relegated to a passive role was unacceptable, so it was natural for them to act out.” Clark didn’t actually chop down the delivery room door with a hatchet; he did so metaphorically by ignoring the rules and accompanying his wife into the labor room. “A man doesn’t need to be a miracle worker to play his role to perfection,” he wrote. “He merely needs to be there, period. Instead of wearing out the carpet of the lounge on the floor, he is simply required to pull up a chair to his wife’s bedside.”
14) In the face of growing resentment from both mom and dad, hospital policy changed slowly starting in the 1950s. Some hospitals permitted fathers briefly to visit their wives in labor if they were in private rooms. Still, physicians were very resistant to letting lay people — especially fathers — into the labor room because they worried men would see things that they didn’t understand and sue the hospital.
In time, though, they came to realize men could be allies rather than threats. It was easier, they believed, for male doctors to speak “man-to-man” with dad to hopefully get his help convincing mom to accept certain procedures — or tell her about them. For example, as Leavitt recounts, after an agonizing labor experience in 1949, a physician prepared for a cesarean section but declined to tell the woman because, as the husband explained, “She worries too much.”
15) In the end, however, natural childbirth proved to be the strongest impetus of including fathers-to-be in the delivery room. Many women were frustrated that they hadn’t had a voice during childbirth because they were anesthetized. So when English physician Grantly Dick-Read’s book, Childbirth Without Fear, was published in 1959, it gained instant popularity. Dick-Read taught that labor pain was brought on by tension, which was culturally produced from the fear and expectation women had that childbirth hurt. He advocated relaxation techniques and deep breathing with the help of sympathetic birth attendants. “This requires the husband to be there throughout,” he directed. “Until the actual delivery.”
Along with the natural childbirth movement, certain medications also allowed men to break down the walls of labor rooms in American hospitals. When caudal anesthesia — the injection of local anesthetic into a portion of the spinal canal (aka an epidural) — became more readily available in the 1950s, women were now able to be awake and virtually pain-free during labor. As Marguerite Ball wrote in Woman’s Home Companion in May 1943 of her experience with caudal anesthesia, “When I drained my coffee, my husband lighted a cigarette and passed it over to me as we began to discuss the European situation.”
16) “I delivered my first baby in 1995,” says McKnight, who was taught in medical school that dads had a crucial role to play. In the pre-epidural days, he says, “the father was really important because that poor lady was suffering. In the early part of labor when the mother doesn’t have adequate pain control, she becomes increasingly uncomfortable and fearful. We realized husbands were particularly good at calming them down. We knew that, and we wanted them there. I would educate men about what their role would be as a support person. I would tell them, ‘Remember, your wife may be different in labor, and your job is to take anything she to you with a grain of salt and move on. Don’t try to argue with her.’”
17) “There was a big push to get men more active in family life,” Leavitt explains. “Middle-class families had moved to the suburbs, and men’s participation in children’s lives was limited. There was an effort to make men want to be with their children more. This was a good first step.”
18) And yet, like all social change, progress was slow and varied geographically. For example, when my mother’s cousin’s son was born in 1970 in Kentucky, fathers were prohibited in delivery rooms. She didn’t give it much thought though; that’s just how it was. “Although I questioned just about every other societal norm back then,” she tells me, “I never even thought about this one. In fact, I don’t even know if my husband held our son immediately.”
19) That said, once dads finally breached the delivery room walls, Leavitt says they never looked back. “There were stories of men fainting in the delivery room, and nurses being pulled away to help them,” she says. So that worked against them. But as they became more educated and involved, dads grew into the supportive birthing role they maintain today. “There’s been a lot of encouragement to make sure the father feels like he’s part of the delivery,” says McKnight, explaining he likes to have dad cut the umbilical cord.”
21) Incidentally, my colleague Tracy Moore shat on the delivery table in front of her husband while giving birth. That’s precisely why French obstetrician and childbirth specialist Michel Odent believes the delivery room in no place for dad. “For many men, the emotional fallout of watching their partner have their baby can never be overcome,” he wrote in the Daily Mail in 2008. “Over the years, I’ve seen something akin to post-natal depression in many men who have been present at the birth. I’ve known of perfectly well-balanced men who held their wife’s hand through labor then left the next day never to return again. There are many things we do in private in order to preserve a degree of modesty and mystery. For the benefit of our sex lives, it may be worth adding childbirth to this list.”
22) All of which probably explains the most frequent question McKnight receives from dads in the delivery room: “Hey, doc, can you put an extra stitch in there for me?”